University Ombudsperson Report 2014-2015

Senate Council
October 13, 2015

Introduction

On March 31, 1998, the Senate Committee on Committees and Rules established the position of University Faculty Ombudsperson and defined its duties:

“The University Faculty Ombudsman shall coordinate the training of all college and campus ombudsmen; shall provide for the appropriate dissemination of information among the various college and campus ombudsmen; and shall be the university-level contact for the various college and campus ombudsmen. The University Ombudsman shall report periodically to the Senate Council and shall maintain liaison with the Office of the University Provost, the Office of Human Resources and the Senate Office. The University Ombudsman shall have no appeal function” (Standing Rules, Article III, Section 9).

This report is submitted to Senate Council to review the effectiveness of the Ombudsperson process at Penn State, identify challenges to the process, and suggest measures to improve the process. It may also be helpful to college and campus Ombudspersons who would like to know more about the scope of issues ombudspersons dealt with during the past academic year.

Additional information about the Ombudsperson process is available at the Faculty Senate web site. The handout and recording of the fall 2014 Ombudsperson workshop, 2013-2014 Ombudsperson report, the names and contact information of the 2015-2016 college and campus ombudspersons, and links to ombudspersons’ resources may be found at http://senate.psu.edu/faculty/university-faculty-ombudsperson/ .

In order to assess the Ombudsperson’s activities at Penn State’s various locations, a survey was distributed to all unit ombudspersons in April 2015. The following report summarizes the activities of Penn State’s Ombudspersons.

Survey Questions and Responses by Ombudspersons:

There was a 48.5% response rate to the survey; 32 out of 66 ombudspersons and alternates responded. An additional 16 ombudspersons and alternates sent brief replies indicating that they had no cases in the 2014-2015 academic year, for a total response rate of 72.7% (down from 74.6% in the 2013-2014 survey.)

  1. How long have you served as your unit’s Ombudsperson or alternate?

Of the 32 ombudspersons and alternates who answered this question, 10 have served one year or less, 11 have served two to three years, 8 have served four to six years, and the remaining 3 have served nine, ten and fifteen years, respectively.

  1. How many cases have you been asked to help resolve in the past year?

During the 2014-2015 year, ombudspersons reported handling 48 cases. This represents a decrease of 15.8% from the 57 cases reported in 2013-2014, but is similar to the number of cases reported in 2012-2013 (52).

  1. For each case, what were the key issue(s)? (e.g., lack of communication, promotion and tenure, harassment, incivility, performance review, etc.)

The issues raised in the 2014-2015 year are ranked by frequency below. Some cases involved more than one issue.

  • Performance reviews (11)
  • Incivility/bullying (10)
  • Harassment (7)
  • Lack of communication (6)
  • Promotion & Tenure (4)
  • Policy clarification (3)
  • Scheduling (2)
  • Position reassignment (2)
  • Disagreement with administrative decisions (2)
  • Inadequate mentoring
  • Perceived unfair policies
  • Workload
  • Payroll
  • Distribution of grant funds
  1. What was the position of the person against whom the complaint was lodged? (e.g., staff, faculty, administrator, if other, explain)

In response to this question the following were mentioned: Administrator/Chancellor/Dean (17), Faculty (12), Department head (6), Staff (1), “All levels” (8). Not all ombudspersons responded to this question.

  1. What steps were taken to resolve the issue?

Ombudspersons assisted parties to resolve their problems by facilitating communication, clarifying policies, providing information, and discussing options. In some cases, the faculty members who raised concerns were able to resolve them on their own with the information provided by their ombudsperson. Some cases were referred to the Affirmative Action Office. Specific steps listed on the surveys included:

  • Discussions with parties in the case
  • Discussions with administrators
  • Information gathering and sharing,
  • Consultation with the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Human Resources, and(or) Affirmative Action
  • Reading and responding to correspondence
  • Agreeing on courses of action
  • Clarification of issues, policies, and University procedures, including Promotion and Tenure
  • Discussion of the Appeal process and Faculty Rights & Responsibilities Committee
  1. How many of the cases were resolved at the Ombudsperson level?

During 2014-2015, 20 of 32 reported cases (62.5%) were resolved at the ombudsperson level. Remaining cases were either taken to FR&R, taken to Affirmative Action, not pursued, or are still being worked on. Some unit Ombudspersons did not report on the resolution of their cases.

  1. How many cases were referred to the Senate Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities or other offices? (e.g. Affirmative Action, Human Resources, etc.)

During 2014-2015, 7 cases were recommended or referred to FR&R. One known case was referred to Affirmative Action, one known case was referred to a financial administrator, and one known case resulted in legal action against the university. One case resulted in the insertion of a note on the HR 29 web page to clarify how health care contributions are calculated during phased retirement.

  1. In your role as a college/campus Ombudsperson, did any issues concerning the Ombudsperson process arise which should be addressed by the University Faculty Senate? If so, explain.

The following are comments received from responding ombudspersons.

  • The recommendations in AD 23 regarding the 5-year pre-tenure review leave it open to interpretation. It would be helpful if the conditions when it is appropriate to have a 5-year review were more clearly and more firmly stated.
  • While some faculty serve at an alternate campus, their faculty designation may be at a distant campus. This makes it difficult for their home campus ombudsperson to provide services.
  1. Are there suggestions you would like to make that could be useful to another ombudsperson, especially a new one?

Thirteen ombudspersons made suggestions. Following are some of the responses received in this year’s survey:

  • Contact all parties ASAP.
  • Read policy. Be patient. Listen. Take notes (but keep them brief and factual).
  • Objectively listen to both sides and do not come to any conclusion until you have the point of disagreement clearly defined.
  • If you are the unit’s Ombudsperson, inform the Alternate Ombudsperson that a case has arisen, even if you don’t anticipate that they will be involved in helping to resolve it.
  • Make sure you know the administration in your own college.
  • If unsure about an issue, always seek advice from the University Ombudsperson. (Three Ombuds gave similar responses.)
  • Attend the annual seminar in the fall semester; this is a useful exercise.
  • It would be helpful to work through typical scenarios to discuss strategies to deal with particular issues. (Three Ombuds made similar suggestions.)
  • There appears to be no performance manual for this position.
  • I think a university-wide announcement of the ombudspersons and the role of the ombudsperson would be helpful.

Conclusions:

  1. Communication problems still exist. Many of the issues brought to Ombudspersons could have been avoided or mitigated by better communication.
  2. Ombudspersons would like more training.
  3. A better response rate to the annual survey would enhance the validity of the annual report.
  4. For the most part, the Ombudsperson process at Penn State appears to be working well.

Recommendations:

The first three recommendations below come from Immediate Past University Faculty Ombudsperson Deborah Atwater’s 2014-2015 Ombudsperson Report to Senate Council. The first two recommendations stress the need to educate the entire university community about adherence to University policies and the procedures to help resolve conflicts; they will always be important.

  1. “Reaffirm the obligation of administrators, at all levels, to adhere to University policies, in particular to the maintenance of confidentiality, in all matters concerning faculty disputes.” [Note: Administrators should explain the rationale for their decisions to the extent possible without violating confidentiality.]
  2. “Educate the University at large (administration, faculty, HR staff) about Penn State’s procedures to resolve conflicts, including the Ombudsperson process.”
  3. “Consider electing the University Faculty Ombudsperson to serve as Ombudsperson–Elect for a year followed by a term of office for three years.” [Note: The Committee on Committees and Rules is close to finalizing a legislative report to create the position of Ombudsperson-Elect.]
  4. Enhance the training for newly elected and continuing Ombudspersons.
  5. Units with substantial numbers of faculty permanently assigned to locations distant from the home unit should consider electing an ombudsperson and alternate for the faculty at the distant location.
  6. Improve the response rate on the survey.

Ideas to fulfill these recommendations:

  1. The Senate Officers could discuss the ombudsperson process during their visits to all Penn State locations and their meetings with administrators and faculty.
  2. The Provost’s Office could include an overview of the Ombudsperson process at the orientation for new administrators in charge of faculty and periodically at subsequent meetings.
  3. Unit ombudspersons should introduce themselves at least annually to the faculty they serve, and provide a brief overview of their role. Colleges and campuses could have a web page informing faculty as about their Ombudsperson and what an Ombudsperson can and cannot do.
  4. The University Faculty Ombudsperson could provide periodic updates to college and campus ombudspersons and alternates about changes in policies and procedures that might affect their practice.
  5. The fall orientation for college and unit ombudspersons could be extended beyond 1.5 hours to allow more time for questions and answers and the discussion of scenarios.
  6. One or more additional discussions could be held each year among Ombudspersons on case scenarios.
  7. Units with remote locations should be encouraged to elect Ombudspersons and alternates to serve the faculty at those locations.
  8. Prior to the distribution of the annual survey, Ombudspersons could be given advance notice that it will be coming, with an explanation of the importance of the survey. Polite reminders could be sent to Ombudspersons who do not return the survey by the deadline.

Submitted by:
Pamela P. Hufnagel
University Faculty Ombudsperson
October 13, 2015